The Folger Shakespeare Library possesses several examples of the document known as the “bill of lading,” the earliest dating from 1623, the others from the later seventeenth century. The 1623 bill of lading in the Folger is a seemingly insignificant sheet of paper. But it has a story to tell. Indirectly, we can connect it to a foundational moment in American history. But it also helped me to better understand a crucial element in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600), which I had never really thought about before, allowing me to glimpse that play, fleetingly, through the eyes of an Elizabethan or Jacobean audience.
Bills of lading were receipts, confirming the value and ownership of merchandise shipped by sea. Although they began as hand-written documents, by the early seventeenth century these bills were produced as printed forms which contained blank spaces, known as “windows” at the time, to be filled in using pen and ink.1 The Folger catalogues these kinds of documents as manuscripts, although they’re really a hybrid of print and manuscript. As printed texts, they were usually produced two or three to a single-sided sheet in a landscape format. By the 1620s, these forms were “commonly to be had in print in all places, and in several languages.”2 A completed bill of lading itemized the goods that were to be shipped, identified the shipper (usually the master or purser of the vessel carrying the goods), the value of the freight, and the names of the consigner and the consignee or recipient of the cargo.
The Folger’s bill of lading is dated November 15, 1623.
We don’t know when or by whom this form was printed, but it was completed in London at about the same time that the first folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays was being offered for sale. It was printed in the cursive type known as civilité.3 The hand-written sections of the form aren’t easy to read. But thanks to the paleographic skills of Elisabeth Chaghafi (University of Tübingen) and Gregory Pass (Pius XII Library, Saint Louis University), together with Sara Schliep and Nicole Winard at the Folger, who were able to decipher the form, we learn that the document records the transshipment of a consignment of two hundredweight of nutmegs, two hundredweight of cloves, and one bale of calico from London to Venice, on board the vessel Phenix of London which was recorded as lying at anchor in the “River of Theames.”
Phoenix was a popular ship’s name in the period, as it still is today. Between 1570 and 1618 at least seven vessels named “Phoenix” were built in various English shipyards, but only two whose home port was London, as mentioned on the 1623 bill. Two merchant vessels named “Phoenix”–Golden Phenix and Zouch Phenix–sailed in the (failed) English punitive expedition against the Barbary pirates in 1620-1621.4 The most likely candidate for the ship mentioned in the Folger bill is the Phoenix launched in London in 1597.5
Phoenix or Great Phoenix (as she may also have been known) was a substantial vessel of some two hundred and fifty to three hundred tons burthen. 6 From around 1600 Phoenix was chartered by the Levant Company to ply between London, Venice, and the eastern Mediterranean.7 But occasionally she sailed in more distant waters. For Phoenix was one of the vessels which formed the “First Supply Fleet” to the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1607 – 1608.8 More distantly, the Phoenix of the Folger’s bill of lading might be related to the fictional vessel mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (5. 1. 57) where we learn of “Phoenix and her fraught” (i.e., freight) captured near “Candy” (i.e., Crete) in the eastern Mediterranean, in a play which was probably composed around the time (1600-1601) that the actual Phoenix began trading in those same waters on behalf of the Levant Company.
The importance of the bill of lading as a financial document covering the 1623 voyage of Phoenix is proclaimed by the various filing holes which are just visible in the image – two of them underneath the words “to say” in line five, and one further down the page beneath the hand-written name “Bishop.”
I counted at least five of these holes, which show how the document had been threaded and re-threaded a number of times on lengths of string and kept for future reference.9 For the bill of lading was a valuable piece of paper, which would be “kept for to serve in case of losse, to recover the value of the goods of the assurors that have undertaken to beare the adventure.”10 In the blank spaces of the form, the details of the shipment have been entered by hand. The value of the cargo was “Eighten duccates In Banco,” meaning that the value of the cargo, eighteen ducats, had been assessed at a fixed rate rather than at the prevailing rate of the local currency–the equivalent of today’s “money of account.” The name of the merchant consigning the cargo was “Morris Abott;” the name of the master of Phoenix was “Reynald New;” and the consignee in Venice was “Randoll Simer.” We know nothing of either New or Simer. Maurice Abbot (1565–1642), on the other hand, was a well-connected and wealthy London shipowner, a director of the East India Company, and a member of the Levant Company.
In the left hand margin of the form, we can see Abbot’s “merchant mark”–an emblem composed out of his initials “M.A.” combined with the superimposition of the Greek letters tau (Τ) and rho (Ρ) creating a monogram of Christ–a common device in merchant’s marks at the time.
This mark would have been stamped on Abbot’s goods shipped on Phoenix, which enabled the cargo to be tallied with the correct bill of lading. Finally, the document was signed “p[er] me Phi[lip]: Bishop” who was probably responsible for completing the form. Bishop, we might guess, would have been the purser on Phoenix, handling the paperwork for the voyage. The scrawled (almost illegible) handwriting might suggest that he was working under pressure, as he filled in many other bills of lading as Phoenix embarked her cargo, prior to weighing anchor and heading downriver on an ebb tide to begin the long and (given the time of year) probably uncomfortable voyage south.
The other terms used on the form referred to what we would now think of as the standard “conditions of carriage.” “Primage and average accustomed” refers to ex gratia payment to the ship’s master (“primage”), and additional fees covering port charges or pilotage (“average”). Affirming “to three bils of lading” alludes to the practice of making out these forms in triplicate, one of which would be retained by the consignor, the second accompanying the goods, and the third (where this was possible) forwarded independently as “advice” to the consignee. At the bottom of the form, we can see that the shipment was itemized in Italian, which Elisabeth transcribed and translated as “2. Barili Nose” (two barrels of nuts), “2. Barili Garofoli” (two barrels of cloves) and “1. Balla telle” (1 bale of cloth). The note in Italian and the numerous filing holes suggest that this may have been the copy of the form sent with the goods from London to Venice. So, we can surmise that Phoenix successfully completed her voyage of over three thousand nautical miles, which would have taken the heavily laden merchant vessel around three weeks, before she disembarked her cargo at one of the numerous fondachi or warehouses clustered along the Grand Canal shortly before Christmas 1623.
The value of Maurice Abbot’s cargo, shipped on Phoenix in 1623 was eighteen ducats. When I first read that sum, I was puzzled. How could Abbot have made a profit out of the long, hazardous, and expensive voyage to Venice from a cargo worth just a paltry eighteen ducats? And the size of the shipment was also a puzzle. As you can see from the image of a modern model of a seventeenth-century English merchant ship, four barrels and a bale of cloth would have occupied just a fraction of the hold of Phoenix.
But eighteen ducats would not have been the total value of Phoenix’s cargo on her winter voyage into the Mediterranean. Rather, she would have been packed with cargo consigned by numerous London merchants. For shrewd traders or “adventurers” such as Abbot preferred to spread financial risk by shipping freight in smaller dispersed consignments, such as the four barrels and one bale of cloth covered by the 1623 bill. And this practice underlines the importance of the bill of lading and the merchant’s mark. Each item in Phoenix’s hold would have born a merchant’s mark to be tallied against many other bills of lading carefully threaded and re-threaded on lengths of string in London, on the ship itself, and (eventually) in Venice.
So, what did this form drawn up on behalf of a merchant of London tell me about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?
Shakespeare’s play is, of course, all about money, risk, bonds, interest, and the precise interpretation of the letter of the law, leavened by cruelty, humiliation, and a vicious undercurrent of antisemitism. In the play, the first words that we hear from Shylock are the value of the sum which Bassanio is seeking to borrow from him: “Three thousand ducats, well.”(1.3.1). In all, that sum is mentioned no fewer than twelve times in the play, as if Shakespeare wanted to imprint that precise figure on the consciousness of his audience. To us, that sounds like a lot of money. But, today, because we have very little idea of the value of an early seventeenth-century ducat, we tend to underestimate the enormous sums of money which are casually bandied about in the play – the diamond worth two thousand ducats removed by Jessica, or the six thousand ducats offered to Shylock to cancel his bond. “Pay him six thousand and deface the bond” Portia advises Bassanio. “Double six thousand and then treble that” she continues, to obliterate “the petty debt.” (3.2. 312-320), a sum which amounts to thirty six thousand ducats. Antonio’s expected value from his (as he hopes) returning ships within the three-month term of the bond is rated at “thrice three times” the sum he owes Shylock–twenty-seven thousand ducats.
These were astronomical sums of money which would have been beyond the wildest dreams of avarice of Shakespeare’s audience. Interestingly, Shakespeare doesn’t spell out these sums directly, but encourages the audience to do the calculations mentally (6 x 2 x 3 = 36, and then 3 x 3 x 3 = 27), as if he was enlisting them as Venetian accountants. Calculating the value of money in the past is notoriously difficult, whether we use some idea of notional or theoretical purchasing power, or a daily wage as the basis of the calculation. As Stanley Wells has wisely cautioned us “the constant fluctuation in relative values… renders useless any attempt to express the value of monetary units of Shakespeare’s time by any simple equation (even though one still occasionally comes across attempts to do so).” Although Wells himself goes on to do something rather similar when he observes that the three thousand ducats which is Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s annual income in Twelfth Night (1.2. 20) makes him, by today’s standards, “seriously rich.”11
Blithely ignoring this judicious warning, the 1623 bill of lading encouraged me to make just that kind of “useless” calculation. The Venetian gold ducat – the international trading currency of Shakespeare’s period–contained just over 3.5 grammes of almost pure gold.
Today (October 12, 2022) I learn that gold is trading in London and New York at $53.64 per gramme, so that one ducat would be worth about $188 in terms of today’s bullion value, although ducats as collectors’ items are now worth much more than that – a mid-sixteenth-century Venetian ducat is currently being offered for sale on e-bay for $560. But using today’s gold price as a way of roughly calculating equivalent value, then Maurice Abbot’s cargo on Phoenix in 1623 was worth around $3,300 in today’s money – a relatively small sum. But the sum which Antonio borrows from Shylock against his bond in The Merchant of Venice is (in today’s money) around $560,000, while Shylock turns down the modern equivalent of well over a $1,000,000, in preference for a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
No wonder that Shylock has to explain to Bassanio that he “cannot instantly raise up the gross / Of full three thousand ducats, ” relying on Tubal to furnish the remainder (1.3. 56-7). We can only imagine the gasps in the audience when the play was first performed, probably sometime before 1598, as spectators realized the extent of Antonio’s reckless folly in gambling this kind of money against the expected return of his trade-filled “argosies.” For as the 1623 bill covering a dispersed cargo reminds us, shipping was a business fraught with risk–a risk of which Shylock is keenly aware, when he describes Antonio’s wealth as being only “in supposition:”
… ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land rats and water rats, water thieves and land thieves—I mean pirates—and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks. The man is, notwithstanding, sufficient. Three thousand ducats. I think I may take his bond. (I. 3. 21-25).
Shakespeare’s audience would have readily understood that Antonio’s wealth was only “in supposition,” existing primarily as bills of lading of the kind filled in on behalf of Maurice Abbot in 1623. Bassanio’s response is that Shylock may be “assured” that Antonio will be able to meet the debt, to which Shylock responds with a sardonic pun: “I will be assured I may,” referring us back to the sense of assurance as insurance used to describe the importance of a bill of lading to “the assurors that have undertaken to beare the adventure.”
Were Antonio’s “argosies” to be imagined as insured or “assured” as seems to have been the practice in the period, using a bill of lading as proof of shipment? Clearly not. If they had been, then Shakespeare would have had no drama worth the name. When Antonio’s vessels are reported (wrongly as it turns out) to have been wrecked, he is ruined, and the bond is forfeit. But the bill of lading helps us to do another kind of calculation, which underlines the extent of his foolhardiness.
If (pace Stanley Wells) we use the Folger’s 1623 bill of lading as our unit of currency to calculate the extent of Antonio’s borrowing from Shylock, then it would have taken a shipment of well over six hundred barrels of cloves and nutmegs, as well as over one hundred bolts of calico to match Antonio’s debt–a cargo that would have filled the hold of Phoenix in 1623 many times over. If we can imagine, too, the well-connected and cautious merchant of London, Maurice Abbot, sitting (we might guess) in one of the more expensive seats at one of the play’s many pre-1600 performances by the Lord Chamberlain’s men (as the title page of the 1600 quarto of the play informs us), then I am almost certain that he, too, would have shaken his head in disbelief at the foolhardiness of the merchant of Venice. For it is clear that the debt was not “petty,” and that Antonio was very far from being “sufficient.” It is not just that Shylock’s terms were (to say the least) unusual, but that the deal represented, from Antonio’s point of view, a reckless gamble of vast sums of money against a highly uncertain outcome. The nature of that gamble is made clear by the scrap of paper which has made the long journey through time and space, from seventeenth-century London to Venice, possibly back to London, and eventually to Washington DC, when it was acquired by the Folger in 2015.
- Editor’s Note: See a previous Collation post, “Sign Here Please“, for more on these early forms.
- Gerard Malynes, Consuetudo, vel lex mercatoria, or The ancient Law-merchant Divided into three parts: according to the Essentiall Parts of Trafficke (London, 1622), sig. N1V
- Heather Wolfe, “Print or Manuscript? Civilité Type in Early Modern England,” The Collation, July 22, 2014.
- John Button, Algiers Voyage…Against the Pirates of Algiers (London, 1621), sig. B2V.
- Brian Dietz, “The Royal Bounty and English Merchant Shipping in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” The Mariner’s Mirror 77 (1991) pp. 5-20 (p. 16)
- Tons “burthen” is a measure of the cargo capacity of a vessel rather than her deadweight, although the measurement was imprecise in the past.
- M. Epstein, The Early History of the Levant Company (London: George Routledge & Sons Limited, 1908), p. 225.
- John Smith, A Map of Virginia with a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (Oxford, 1612), sig. D1R.
- Heather Wolfe, “Filing, seventeenth-century style,” The Collation March 28, 2013
- Malynes, Consuetudo, vel lex mercatoria, sig. N2R.
- Stanley Wells, “Money in Shakespeare’s Comedies” in Stanley Wells, Shakespeare on Stage and Page: Selected Essays (Oxford: OUP, 2016) pp. 401, 402.
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